Slow Emergencies: A Novel

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Nancy Huston, award-winning author of The Mark of the Angel, meditates on the conflict between life and art for a talented young dancer in her poetic new novel.

Lin Lhomond has a husband, two daughters, and close friends. But dance is both her profession and her passion. Inescapably, dance imposes itself upon her, until the inevitable moment when Lin feels she must choose between her family life in a New England town and the all-consuming ...
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Nancy Huston, award-winning author of The Mark of the Angel, meditates on the conflict between life and art for a talented young dancer in her poetic new novel.

Lin Lhomond has a husband, two daughters, and close friends. But dance is both her profession and her passion. Inescapably, dance imposes itself upon her, until the inevitable moment when Lin feels she must choose between her family life in a New England town and the all-consuming world of dance to which she aches to return. Huston writes brilliantly about the passage of time, the delights and horrors of motherhood, the body’s vulnerability, and the solitude of creative endeavor. What results is a deeply felt novel that offers a disquieting but profoundly moving meditation on just what it means to be an artist.
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Editorial Reviews

From The Critics
This deceptively straightforward tale of a motherless woman who abandons her husband and two daughters to pursue a career in dance is told simply and without pretense. Talented Lin Lhomond faces an eternal dilemma: Is it wise to abandon family for art? Is creative freedom worth the sacrifice and pain it causes loved ones? Unfortunately, the book never answers the questions. Instead, it dances between childlike wish fulfillment and angst. With fluid ease, Lin becomes a world-famous artist. Her husband marries her best friend, but they both continue loving her. Her children adjust—sort of: One obsesses about the Holocaust; the other becomes an unwed mother. And when Lin winds up lame and cannot dance, thanks to a botched operation, the reader is left wondering if she made the right decision, and how losing her mother may have influenced her path. Huston deserves bravos for her portrayal of how motherhood devours the mother, yet the novel often lacks adequate exploration and needs further probing. Despite its strong beginning, it emerges as a sketch for a deeper dance, lacking a brilliant finale.
—Ethel Hammer

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Canadian-born Huston relocated permanently to Paris at age 20, married literary and cultural critic Tzvetan Todorov, raised two children and has published many nonfiction books and seven novels (Steerforth issued The Mark of the Angel here with fanfare last year) in her adopted as well as her native tongue. Her latest domestic release, already acclaimed in France as La Virevolte, chronicles the experiences of a woman torn between continents and between the competing passions of motherhood and artistry. In an unnamed New England town, dancer Lin Lhomond marries college professor Derek and bears two children, Angela and Marina. Though Lin adores her babies, she longs for the space and time her art requires. When she is offered the directorship of a dance company in Mexico, she sees an escape, divorcing Derek and leaving the girls in order to pursue her passion. Huston documents both Lin's rise as a renowned choreographer, in Mexico, Paris and London, and Derek, Angela and Marina's stunned attempts to make a life without her. Though he is still in love with his former wife, and the girls cannot forget their mother, Derek finally marries fellow professor Rachel, an old friend of Lin's. In spare, cinematic prose, leaping from character to character and across two decades, Huston follows the girls' progress as they grow up to become troubled adults. Lin, meanwhile, still racked with guilt over abandoning her children, faces a career-threatening injury. Huston's loose, often unpunctuated narrative reads fluidly, but her lyrical language, called upon to carry the tale, cannot quite bear its weight; the novel's associative monologues may have worked better in the original French. As it is, Huston produces a sensitive, sweeping account of the difficulty of reconciling maternal and artistic callings, a topic that begs for a more sustained and focused treatment. A long, enthusiastic blurb from Jeffrey Lent may draw attention to this title. (Jan. 6) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
In the stunning and sensual passage that opens this book, a dancer named Lin is giving birth to her first daughter, and the subsequent story takes more unplanned turns and pirouettes than one of her dances. Lin and Derek can't get enough of baby Angela, exclaiming over every little thing she does. Nor can they get enough of each other. It's a wonder that Lin has any time left over for dance rehearsals and performances or that Derek has time to teach his philosophy courses. Soon a second daughter arrives, and not too long after, Lin's private life takes a back seat to her professional career. The marriage unravels quickly. But Lin goes beyond getting a divorce, leaving her children behind to pursue her career, though the decision clearly torments her. This haunting story about an uncommon subject is for most contemporary fiction collections.--Lisa Nussbaum, Dauphin Cty. Lib. Syst., Harrisburg, PA Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
From the Publisher
“Spare, elegant …. I can think of no other novel that so honestly and deeply explores the experience of the artist.” — Jeffrey Lent, author of In the Fall

“A sensitive, sweeping account of the difficulty of reconciling maternal and artistic callings”–Publishers Weekly

“A haunting story about an uncommon subject”–Library Journal

“One wakes from this novel as from a spell of urgent, slow-motion dreams. . . . Slow Emergencies is full of the elements of enchantment.” — The Washington Post

“Told simply and without pretense. . . . Huston deserves bravos for her portrayal of how motherhood devours the mother.”– Book

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781883642631
  • Publisher: Steerforth Press
  • Publication date: 1/1/2001
  • Edition description: 1 AMER ED
  • Pages: 208
  • Product dimensions: 5.30 (w) x 7.81 (h) x 0.83 (d)

Meet the Author

A native of Calgary and of New Hampshire, Nancy Huston now lives in Paris; she writes in both French and English. The author of nine novels and numerous works of nonfiction, she has won the Prix Goncourt des Lycéen, the Prix du Livre-Inter, the Prix Elle, and the Governor General’s Award for Fiction in French.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

    That body is out of her.

A girl, say the people whose hands are now skillfully manipulating tiny angular limbs and lumps of glistening sticky buttocks and hairy head down there, then plunging deep into the yawning chasm of Lin's body to extract the black-red pulsating form of living flesh that belongs to no one, neither to her nor to the child — then they are sewing her.

    Lin does not care what they do to her now. That body is out of her. It is on the roof of its empty house and its lips have fastened round her nipple and are sucking fast as heartbeat, fierce as sex. A person behaving like a real live baby and daughtering her. Such a wee wisp of a thing whereas it had weighed like a boulder in her gut. While the wolf was sleeping, bloated and ill from having gobbled down seven baby goats one after the other without so much as bothering to chew them, the nanny goat came to the rescue of her children: she slit open the wolf's stomach with a knife and all seven kids jumped out safe and sound, then they filled his stomach with stones and stitched it back up again and when the wolf awoke, oh my God ... But here the stone has been replaced by a kid instead of the other way around, and the torn flesh is being sewed up and Lin is a mother. Not only that, but Derek is a father. His nervous futile fanning of her face and smoothing of her hair has ceased; now one of his hands is squeezing hers and he has laid the other gently on his daughter's minute white-clad back. So many monumental new terms coming into play here. A few seconds ago there was no such thing as daughtermother father and now there they are, these words have been violently promoted from clichés to Beethoven symphonies, choirs of angels, floods of sunlight. The nurse is still stitching and dabbing down there, the sting and pierce of the needle are pleasant to Lin, compared with the just-past hellish upheaval of self.

    Once rinsed of womb muck and pressed dry with a towel, Angela's fine thin hair is blond. Her head nests in the crook of Lin's left arm as her lips pump imperiously to draw from Lin's breast the thin nourishing liquid which is not yet milk. Her eyes stare into Lin's eyes as though each second of staring brought with it as much newness and replenishment as each second of sucking.

    Voraciously Angela gulps down the look in her mother's eyes.

    The ward is a swarm of cries and coos and cuddles. Other mothers press small squalling mouths to dripping nipples. Get out of my happiness, thinks Lin.

    Angela is the only baby on earth and Lin the only mother.

    How could she not know to swab the stub of scabbed flesh at her own daughter's midriff?

    In the shower, Lin soaps and scrubs her empty body, vigorously beneath the armpits, gingerly between the legs. She is still there. She did not die or become someone else. Not only is she still herself but she is also a mother. Not only is she still alive but someone else is also, totally, alive at the far end of the corridor and she can feel the tug of that person's life at her heartstrings. It is like falling in love only without the darkness, without the thrill and clutch of fear.

    Angela's feet. Those same feet which a thousand times had kicked Lin soft-thud strangely in the stomach, bladder, intestines, lungs. Long curved toes, nearly invisible slits of toenails, wrinkles everywhere. Absurdly large coming at the end of such puny calves and thighs, absurdly small next to any pair of shoes. Except the pastel booties knit by Derek's mother, Violet, with ribbons slipped through the ankle stitches to tie them securely but despite the ribbons the great red feet keep pushing them off, the left one is always waving around naked and chill, undressed by the snug smug right.

    Bathing her. Lin's left arm crooked beneath Angela's upper back, supporting her head, her right hand gently sponging the fat stomach, sponging the frog legs parted in fifth-position grand plié, sponging the unspeakably sweet sex. Angela's big eyes follow every twitch and twinkle of the face above her. And she is so at home in the tepid water, so ecstatically abandoned.

    During her daughter's long spans of white sleep Lin often finds the clinic's exercise room empty and can lie splayed on its hardwood floor, contract-release relaxing, getting reaccustomed to being the only person in her body. Sometimes when she sits and bends, forward forward downward, drops of milk seep through her shirt and spatter her naked knees.

You'll be back on stage in no time, Mrs. Lhomond, the nurse says one day, upon seeing her emerge from the exercise room. Lin nods, radiant.


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Reading Group Guide

1. We generally think of emergencies as unexpected events that require immediate attention. At first glance, the title Slow Emergencies is an oxymoron. How does the novel embody and make sense of this apparent contradiction? How does the narrative style reinforce the aptness of the title?

2. Why does the book open with a description of Lin giving birth? What elements of the birth scene do you find surprising or unusual? What do the thoughts and images that flicker through Lin's mind reveal about her self-image and her feelings about motherhood? How does the language and tone Huston uses to describe Lin's reactions to her second pregnancy and to Marina's birth [pp. 46-48] differ from the opening scene? What is the significance of the dances Lin conceives after each birth [pp. 17, 50]?

3. Why is Lin so strongly attracted to Sean Farrell? Does Lin share his "gift for instilling discomfort" [p. 33]? Is this trait common among artists? Is it essential to creative work? Sean asks Lin, "How can you go on playing the professor's wife in a piddly little college town--don't you know your gift will be throttled here?" [p. 39] Is it possible to achieve a fulfilling home life and still make full use of one's artistic gifts? Can you cite examples of performers or other artists who have done so? Is it more difficult for women than for men to achieve this balance?

4. Rachel and Lin are initially drawn together as discontented teenagers: "They had not asked to live and their interest in life was feigned and forced. . . . It was not that their ideals had been tarnished--no, they had never had ideals because they had never had mothers" [p.12]. Is the way each girl "lost" her mother relevant to how they developed as adults? Do you think the maternal rejection Rachel suffered is as psychologically damaging as the death of a mother? Does Lin's own abandonment as a child make it easier for her to leave her own daughters?

5. In what ways does Bess influence Lin's ideas about motherhood? Despite her disdain for her stepmother, does Lin recognize qualities in Bess that she admires or even envies?

6. After taking Angela to visit her father and stepmother Lin "rages inwardly against reality" [p. 23]. To what extent is Lin's intense obsession with dance an expression of this rage? What other emotions or needs underlie the demands Lin makes of herself and her dancers and the result she strives for [pp. 20, 108, 115]?

7. Throughout the book there are references to fairy tales and folklore. How do they enhance both the themes Huston explores and the atmosphere she creates?

8. Lin contemplates the lives and accomplishments of other dancers, including Vaslav Nijinsky, Isadora Duncan, Twyla Tharp, and Martha Graham. What parallels are there between Lin's struggles and those of these legendary dancers? Lin's fascination with Isadora Duncan is particularly striking. Do you think that Lin, either consciously or subconsciously, has chosen Duncan as a model?

9. Why does Lin send Angela to ballet school, rather than teaching her herself [p. 56]? Is she protecting her daughter from what she knows is a difficult life, or is there something more at stake for Lin?

10. As she watches Angela and Marina play, Lin thinks, "Never again will my daughters be newborn babies but the dance is perpetually newborn, the dance does not grow so strangely and unpredictably" [p. 64]. Does this passage reflect Lin's inability to accept reality or does it capture a common feeling about motherhood? Is Derek a "better" parent than Lin is? Is his behavior unusual for a father today? How does the scene with Derek's parents [p. 80] bring to light the fundamental differences between Lin and Derek and their approach to parenthood? Why does Lin intentionally provoke Violet by discussing Mary Wigman's Dance of Niobe and her own project, Pietà?

11. What role do Lin's dreams [pp. 16, 74, 85, 109] play in the plot? For the most part, do the dreams contradict or support the feelings Lin consciously acknowledges?

12. The female characters in Slow Emergencies are haunted by thoughts and fears of death. In what different ways do Lin, Rachel, Angela, and Marina express their fears and attempt to take control of them?

13. When Derek and Rachel talk about Lin, they conclude that she feels "guilty . . . but not remorseful" [p. 136]. Is this a valid moral distinction? Does the portrait of Lin that unfolds simultaneously support this assessment?

14. How honest are Derek and Rachel with themselves and each other about their decision to get married? When the family attends Lin's performance, Huston writes "Derek detests Rachel both for knowing exactly why he is upset and for forgiving him" [p. 146]. What does this show about the nature of their marriage? Why do you think Rachel so readily forgives Derek? How does this compare with Derek's reaction upon discovering Rachel's meetings with Sean Farrell [pp. 151-2]?

15. Angela and Marina have very different personalities, yet "the affection between them . . . is a fortress that protects them both" [p. 154]. What needs do they fulfill for one another? In what ways have the adults in their lives--Lin, Derek, and Rachel--influenced their personalities and their beliefs? Why is Marina more attached to Rachel than Angela is? Is this merely a reflection of the difference in their ages when Rachel and Derek marry? What does Marina's interest in the Holocaust reveal about her intellectual and emotional makeup? Why does she identify herself as a Jew when she runs away from Lin in Berlin [p. 160]? What is the significance of Angela's promiscuity as a young woman? How does her decision to become an actress and comedian both link her to and separate her from her mother?

16. Lin's career takes a surprising turn at the end of the book. How does the dance she chooses to work on--Nijinsky's Butterflies of the Night--become a metaphor for the powerful hold of the dance on her sense of identity and the tremendous costs her devotion has exacted?

17. In different configurations, the characters all visit the bridge near their New England home [pp. 36, 78, 127, 173]. Why do so many significant events occur there? What does the bridge symbolize in terms of the relationships among the characters?

18. Slow Emergencies deals with two distinct realms of experience--the professional world of dance and the private world of home and family. Is Huston equally successful in portraying them? In the end, does one world seem more real than the other? Where do you think the author's own sympathies lie?

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 13, 2001

    The exquisite choreography of an artist¿s soul

    Tolstoy, once penned the following in his journal. It is very apropos, both to the subject matter and to the writer of Slow Emergencies: <p> ¿(Art) is a fire sparking up in a human soul. This fire burns, gives warmth and provides light. There are some people who experience the heat, others feel mere warmth, yet a third group only sees the light, and a forth group doesn¿t sense anything, not even the light. However the majority¿ the horde ¿ the judges of (artists), don¿t feel the burning or the warmth, they only see the light. All of them think that the aim of (art) is only to enlighten. People, who think so, become (artists) themselves and walk around with a torch, illuminating lives¿ Others understand, that the essence is in the warmth, and they artificially warm up that, which is easily warmed ¿ But a real (artist) cannot force anything. Cannot help anything. Cannot orchestrate anything. He is ablaze, suffering, and he enflames others. And that is the crux of it.¿<p> Slow Emergencies is an un-romanticized exploration of a life in art. The magnitude of its spirit spills far beyond the confines of the book¿s covers; far beyond the ostensible theme of a choice between career and family. The novel presents a protagonist who, after much struggle to remain ¿normal¿ and to conform to the diktats of society, surrenders to her beckoning destiny. The thematic backbone of Slow Emergencies traverses the canvas of linguistic and structural sophistication: we do not choose art ¿ it chooses us. Fighting the honour of the gods is lethal. The only way to survive is to heed the calling. However, neither is there any quixotic notion of a blissful surrender into a joyous dance with the muses. Giving birth to Art (hence, all the conception and birth metaphors) is an agonizing process. The chosen ones are haunted, tormented with burning pain which drives them to the point of insanity, insists on claiming the body, reorganizes its cells and opens them up to the seeds of divine inspiration. Yes, Lin does make a choice, but not between career and family. She chooses life over death. <p> This book analyzes the effects of such a choice without apologizing for it. The society at large does not understand artists. It cannot, for they are different beings ¿ half human, half divine messengers. Thus, once Lin escapes her suffocating normalcy, the spotlight of the book shifts away from her. Hence we are focused on her all-too-human abandoned family in Small Town, USA. We glimpse the great artist in sporadic tortured-blissful flashes. Humanity exists on the periphery of Inspiration. It is awed, dazzled and frightened by the distant, unfamiliar landscapes of Art. Except this artist happens to be a woman. And when the artist is a woman, humanity also condemns.<p> Nancy Huston¿s prose is subtle, elegant and has long been lauded and revered in Europe. It is about time she has been ¿discovered¿ here!

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